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I read All About Love by bell hooks last February, just before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent. I don’t think I shared before that my introduction to the bell hooks, prior to reading that book, was an essay recommended by the same student who suggested I purchase Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching for the library where I worked, a student who organized a book club for other young men, who told me he was a big fan of hooks’ writing. As I look back, his recommendation was my real introduction to antiracism (as opposed to simply non-racism), although I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I am grateful to that young man and hope he is doing well now.

I digress. Back in the spring, I bought Belonging, also by bell hooks, because I had enjoyed All About Love and also Wendell Berry‘s This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems which I read parts of along with an accompanying Lent devotional booklet from Salt project, and Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis, which connects agrarian themes in the Hebrew scriptures with the writing of Berry and other contemporary agrarians. I knew that in Belonging, hooks talks about how much she admired Wendell Berry’s work, not only on racism (The Hidden Wound) but also on agrarianism; in fact one chapter is an interview hooks conducted with Berry. I was looking for something that was meaningful and also affirming of humankind’s potential and so Belonging floated up to the top of my to read pile.

Because that’s the thing about hooks: despite a tough childhood and growing up in white supremacist segregated Kentucky, hooks write a fair bit about joy, integrity, creativity, self-reliance. Don’t get me wrong, she writes very clearly and searingly about “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and does not sugar coat a thing. But she also writes about what freedom, safety and belonging she felt in the hills of her girlhood, the self-reliance and self-expression her grandparents felt in growing food and making beautiful quilts (like these), and the joy to be found in community. Growing up she learned, “Creating joy in the midst of adversity was an essential survival strategy.”

The essays in Belonging focus on community, but hooks has an expansive view of that word, to include environmental justice as well as racial justice. She talks about the sense of loss she felt leaving Kentucky, even though it had been a painful place for her, and the years she spent trying to find and nurture community in cities where she thought she did belong. But for hooks, belonging is as much connected to the human need to be in right relation with the earth as it is to the same need to be in right relation with each other. Her sense of Kentucky as “homeplace” has as much to do with the land as the people, and she writes movingly about the destruction wrought by hilltop removal and her own work to preserve land.

Having just finished Me and White Supremacy, which I was working through as I was reading Belonging, and I found myself feeling hooks was speaking directly to me when she addressed the fact that even though individual white may be anti-racist, as a group, progressive whites are as racist as any others in her experience, especially when it comes to self-segregating in white neighborhoods. I can think of only 3 homes in my neighborhood where either nonwhites or immigrants live. In fact, all my life, I’ve never lived in a truly diverse neighborhood.

In reminding us that racist habits are so deeply ingrained in American culture, hooks addresses all readers. She writes about the psychological impact of racism, systemic dominator culture and white supremacism and how that prevents both Blacks and whites from trusting and moving forward towards community. White people, she notes, are the ones who have to “work at unlearning and challenging the patterns of racist thought and behavior that are still the norm in our society” — so that it is safe for Blacks to do so as as well. And yet, she is hopeful:

“Yet most people still long for community and that yearning is the place of possibility, the place where we might begin as a nation to think and dream anew about the building of beloved community.”

Speaking to how this can come about, hooks says:

“Those of us who truly believe racism can end, that white supremacist thought and action can be challenged and changed, understand that there is an element of risk as we work to build community across difference. The effort to build community in a social context of racial inequality (much of which is class based) requires an ethic of relational reciprocity, one that is anti-domination. With reciprocity all things do not need to be equal in order for acceptance and mutuality to thrive. If equality is evoked as the only standard by which it is deemed acceptable for people to meet across boundaries and create community, then there is little hope. Fortunately, mutuality is a more constructive and positive foundation for the building of ties that allow for differences in status, position, power, and privilege whether determined by race, class, sexuality, religion, or nationality.”

How to achieve mutuality? Service. Again I can’t possibly say it better, so I will quote hooks:

“Dominator culture devalues the importance of service. Those of us who work to undo negative hierarchies of power understand the humanizing nature of service, understand that in caregiving and caretaking we make ourselves vulnerable. And in that place of vulnerability there is the possibility of recognition, respect, and mutual partnership.”

In the final chapters of Belonging she writes about how that taking care — of friends, of family, of herself, and of the land — has helped her come home. In Belonging readers can both learn and understand the forcers we are up against in contemporary America and how to overcome them. It’s not easy, but hooks shows us the way.

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I discussed Braiding Sweetgrass with a group of science librarians over the summer, and that group chose Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller as our next read. We only have to have the first half of it read by next week but I sat down with it over the weekend and didn’t want to put it down. By Sunday night I’d read the whole thing.

Miller starts out by telling readers that she began to learn about David Starr Jordan, famed taxonomist, especially of fish species, and first president of Stanford, in earnest (and in great detail — Miller was a history major and she knows how to really dig into research) when she was at a low point in her life. She wanted to know “what becomes of you when you refuse to surrender to Chaos.” She had heard about Jordan early in her science reporting career, and felt it was remarkable that when hundreds of one-of-a-kind fish specimens were broken and jumbled in the 1906 earthquake, representing years of work lost in a few minutes, he was not overcome, but dug back into his work.

While the book jacket and publicity make this sound like a science history book with a dash of memoir, it seems to me to be the opposite. Why Fish Don’t Exist is the story of a young woman trying to understand her family, her life, and her future. She’s seeking something to believe in that can make what her scientist father told her as a child less depressing: you don’t matter (and neither does anyone) in the grand scheme of things. This wasn’t meant to put her down, by the way, he just believes it, scientifically.

As Miller goes deeper into Jordan’s story, she begins to realize this man who she looked to for hope, this historical figure who managed to rise from humble origins, and get back up again and go on after many setbacks and personal tragedies, was deeply flawed. He acted unethically and selfishly, ignored or marginalised the indigenous and immigrant people who helped him collect specimens, and it’s even quite likely he murdered Jane Stanford, one of the university’s founders. He was also one of the most outspoken and prominent proponents of eugenics in America.

Miller, still struggling with her own “chaos” — depression that dogged her and her eldest sister, tension in her household growing up, a broken relationship she hoped to patch up for several years — laments, “That’s how his story ends. David Starr Jordan was allowed to emerge unscathed, unpunished for his sins, because this is the world in which we live.” The one her father taught her about. Where there is no “cosmic justice.” Unless there is . . . .

Because just when it seems she’s run the story to its end, Miller learns “that fish, as a legitimate category of creature, do not exist.” I can’t ruin the story by telling you why not — you really have to read the book. But it’s fascinating, and now I think it’s amazing that the category fish persisted for so long, and I followed my husband and grown daughter around the house telling them about it in minute detail yesterday.

What I appreciate is that Miller neither dwells too long in her own chaos nor in Jordan’s; she is thorough without being heavy handed. I learned not only that fish don’t exist, but also a whole lot about the eugenics movement (and I wondered why I’d never learned about such an important and horrible aspect of American history in any depth before). And about “story editing” — the answer Miller found when she wondered whether deluding oneself is ever a good idea. And resilience, which Miller and several other people she writes about appear to have admirable amounts of.

A fascinating read, which you will want to share (whether your current housemates want you to or not). It could have been depressing, since after all this is partly the story of patriarchal hubris. But Miller makes it hopeful and lovely and so interesting.

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Summer is the final book in Ali Smith‘s seasons quartet. I have enjoyed each one (here are my posts on Autumn, Winter, and Spring). Now that I’ve read the whole series (and, I admit, looked at some other reviews) I’m aware that Smith mentions a different Shakespeare play, a different Dickens novel, and a different woman artist in each book. Summer opens with a sort of prelude about a film by Lorenza Mazzetti about “a man carrying two suitcases” “balanced on a very narrow brick ledge which runs round the edge of a high building.”

Just before Smith tells us about this film, she describes how “millions and millions” of people protested “lying, and the mistreatments of people and the planet” but “the people who knew the power of saying so? said, on the radio on TV, on social media, tweet after tweet, page after page: so?” We who are alive in this moment in time are the man, balanced on the precipice, carrying the baggage of partisanship and selfishness.

This sets us up to meet Grace, mother of two teens, Sacha and Robert, who link the people in this novel together. Grace is a Gen X mom, painfully self absorbed, and a leaver (in terms of Brexit). Sacha and Robert are slightly stereotypical as a teen worried about climate change and a younger bullied teen who kind of admires fascism, but really loves Einstein.

Sacha can’t understand why Charlotte (Arthur’s fellow blogger and missing girlfriend in Winter) is taking the siblings to see where Einstein stayed in rural England before emigrating to America. She warns Charlotte that Robert really likes her. Charlotte replies:

“If people think you like them . . . it can go either way. There’s a lot of powerplay in liking and being liked. Such powerful connection. It’s a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always a choice we’ve got.”

Throughout the seasons novels, Smith shows us characters who are making the world bigger or smaller for others. Sacha writes to a refugee she calls Hero. Robert reveals his admiration for Einstein to Charlotte. That was one of my favorite chapters, when Charlotte and Arthur stumble onto helping Sacha and meet her family. Charlotte’s chapter, where she is stuck in a huge old house with Iris, Arthur’s aunt, while Arthur goes to be with Elizabeth from Autumn, is also excellent.

Iris, ever practical, plans to have a bigger septic tank put in so she can take in refugees let loose from detention camps because of COVID (including Hero). And leaves soup outside Charlotte’s door when she is unable to deal with the world and Arthur’s betrayal all at once. I also loved hearing more from Daniel, the old man from Autumn, and learning about his sister’s work with the Resistance during WWII. Smith captures perfectly the pain, anxiety, and fear of our times, and of humanity generally.

This book, and the whole series, is about Brexit, and COVID, and fascism, and art, but also most of all, about humanity. Charlotte notes, “What art does is exist . . . . And then because we encounter it, we remember we exist too. And that one day we won’t.” Smith’s series does that — reminds us we exist in this dysfunctional world, that we’re connected to each other, as her characters are.

What Smith does is manage to write about the worst of human nature, all the ways we harm each other and the planet, all the ways power is corrupted, all the ways we twist love to suit our purposes, take nature for granted, and yet still somehow manage to get through, to carry each other, resist, and overcome. Charlotte, Iris, and Sacha, Daniel and Elizabeth, even bumbling Grace and damaged Robert and fickle Arthur, we’re all in this together. Somehow, as we stumble towards grace (the state, not the character), leaving our imprint on the world in the form of literature, music, and art. We come closer to what’s possible.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books and imagine I’ll re-read them in years to come.

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Over the summer I read Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel about the legacy of slavery that ranges over several generations. Last night I finished her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which is the story of one family, and focuses mainly on one character, Gifty, and to a lesser extent her older brother Nana and their parents. Much of the story is told through Gifty’s recollections of her childhood, and snippets of the the diary she kept. Because it’s a novel that takes place in Gifty’s thoughts, it isn’t a narrative tale; although Gifty eventually fills in much of her life’s story, her thoughts, like anyone’s, jump around.

As in Homegoing (and in Gyasi’s own life), Gifty’s family story begins in Ghana. But the book opens with Gifty’s childhood visit to Ghana to stay with her aunt. Even though we eventually learn that there is so much more to her mother, Gifty tells us in the first sentence, “Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-size bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student.”

Gifty then recalls what led to the overpowering depression her mother experienced, the losses she faced, the ways America did not live up to the dreams her mother had when she entered a lottery to emigrate, causing her father, embarrassed and unsettled by racism and poverty, to visit Ghana and never return. “For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her, but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two.”

Gifty’s athletic brother Nana, several years older than she is, is the next to go, when he gets hooked on OxyContin after an injury and cannot overcome his addiction. His overdose changes Gifty’s life even more tangibly than her father’s abandonment. Always an achiever, a child who yearns to be good by her mother’s and her evangelical church’s standards, she finds solace in math and science because of their certainty. As a graduate student, she has returned to a less certain world. What makes the brain work as it does? How much is science and how much is will? And what can science do to shape that will? Her experiments with mice and pleasure-seeking regions of the brain, she hopes, will prevent other little girls’ brothers from dying of an overdose, but shame and fear of being taken less seriously prevent her from sharing.

Gifty recalls,

“In the book of Matthew, Jesus says,”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Here is separation. Your heart, the part of you that feels. Your mind, the part of you that thinks. Your soul, the part of you that is. I almost never hear neuroscientists speak about the soul. Because of our work, we are often given to thinking about that part of humans that is the vital, inexplicable essence of ourselves, as the workings of our brains . . . . There is no separation. Our brains are our hearts that feel and our minds that think and our souls that are.”

Her work, she sees, is the same thing she was concerned with as a child: how much control we have over ourselves. “I am looking for new names for old feelings,” Gifty thinks. But her heart, in childhood and in adulthood, is the last thing she thinks about; it’s almost as if the trauma of her shattered family, compounded by racism’s psychological and economic tolls, piles up like bricks around Gifty’s heart. But the work she is doing gives her a kind of peace from the tensions of heart and mind, soul peace:

“The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.”

This deep thinking about mind and soul, neuroscience and faith, permeate Gifty’s story and make her who she is. And make this novel so much more than just the story of an immigrant family. It’s also beautiful — Gyasi’s writing is just a pleasure to read.

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After telling a friend about This is Happiness by Niall Williams, she told me that one of her favorite novels, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, also featured a storyline about electricity coming to a rural area, and was also lyrical. She reads a great deal and spoke so highly of this book that I knew I needed to read it, too.

It’s a novel about love, as well as humankind’s desire to harness science for our purposes. When the story begins, Ray Foster (Fos) has returned to coastal North Carolina where he was raised, to watch the Perseid meteor shower and observe the bioluminescence on the sea. He’s has a theory that there’s a connection between light-emitting creatures and “celestial lights.” He runs out of gas and meets Opal, a bookkeeper, when his truck stops and he asks her father for some gas. They fall in love, get married and travel back to Knoxville, where Fos’s friend and fellow WWI veteran Flash and he run a photography studio.

For a good while the story is about Fos and Opal’s relationship, about Flash’s wildness, his estrangement from his prominent family. Ordinary things. Fos and Opal travel around Tennessee going to fairs where Fos puts on shows as a “phenomenologist,” demonstrating an x ray machine and other scientific phenomena. They long for a child, meet Opal’s cousins in a rural county, learn that she has inherited some land adjacent to her cousin’s farm. Flash takes them fishing, and introduces Opal to his favorite books, including Moby Dick. Opal reads most of them, but not that one (she tries, like many of us, and gives up). They follow along with the Scopes trial, Calvin Coolidge’s election.

This goes on, and Wiggins beautifully spins out the story of these three people, living and working and longing — Flash, to escape his family history, which we get a glimpse of, and live his own life, Fos and Opal to have a family of their own. After almost 200 pages, there is a plot twist that shatters the three friends’ lives.

From there the story focuses on Fos and Opal, how they pick up the pieces and make a new life (in a rural place where the Tennessee Valley Authority promises electricity soon). At long last they become parents to a son, Lightfoot. Fos goes from demonstrating x rays to showing people the toasters and other appliances they will soon be able to use — just as in This is Happiness. Opal gets a New Deal job as a rural librarian. There are a few more plot twists that lead Fos back into photography and ultimately, to Oak Ridge, one of the sites of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. (A few years ago I reviewed The Girls of Atomic City about women at Oak Ridge).

And there, another plot twist is so shattering that I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning first reading, and then thinking about what was going to happen next. By the end of the book, Lightfoot is nearly twenty, meets “Uncle Flash” and the two of them take an epic road trip. A young man full of questions and an older one who tells him, “Life is a series of collisions . . . it’s not a narrative experience. My advice to you is to stop trying to make it one.”

I guess Evidence of Things Unseen is a series of collisions. It’s not a beginning, middle, and end kind of story; we catch the characters in the act of living and we don’t know, when the novel comes to a close, what will happen to them. I said it’s about love, and as I reflect I think it’s really a book about Opal’s love, a steadfast love that transforms Fos’s life and sustains her friend Flash and her son Lightfoot, and touches several other people. And I said it’s about our desire to harness science — Wiggins shines a light on the consequences when the pursuit of that desire, and the belief that science is our salvation, overpowers our natural instinct to love one another and care for each other.

A powerful read, that I am still mulling over.

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Another reason to prefer Hoopla to the other library eBook options is that it includes books published by independent publishers, like Bellevue Literary Press. I was intrigued when I heard about one of their recent releases, Moss, by Klaus Modick. As I’ve written here before, I am a fan of reading books in translation; I like finding out what people are reading around the world. And I like being transported not only to the place and time of the book, but to an author’s view of the world that cannot help but be different than mine, by virtue of having grown up in and lived in a completely different culture.

Moss did transport me to another’s view — the main character, Lukas Ohlburg, is an elderly plant scientist, whose memories include his botany professor, Mandelbaum, being warned by other students to “stay on topic” when he referred to the rising fascism in Germany derisively as “pseudomutations of political brown algae.” Lukas is staying in the partially thatched cottage where his family spent summers as he was growing up. And he is reflecting on the ways the work he has done, describing plants in the structured ways of science, is lacking. He writes about this in a manuscript that readers are told his younger brother finds in the house.

To Lukas, the scientific language he has worked with for his entire adult life is lacking, ” . . . in the best case, it says only what grows here, albeit in a soulless and uncomprehending way. Never can it say how, and never with full certainty could it say why.” As he writes, swims, watches the seasons change, and faces his own mortality, he remembers certain key moments in his life that influenced his understanding of the world and devotes himself to really understanding the plants he loves, especially the mosses.

Despite the strangeness and the setting unlike my own place and time, the story seemed familiar, or maybe just resonated because of other things I’ve read that had similar sensibilities. For example, I thought of Tinkers, where the protagonist is traveling through his thoughts as he is dying, although he is in the active stage of dying whereas Lukas is just approaching it. And I thought of The Hidden Life of Trees, which so eloquently describes how our own capacity to understand the world expands if we try to learn how our fellow species understand it. Good books seem more apt to connect in this way with other things we’ve read, and I enjoyed the connections Moss triggered.

There were two points in this short novel that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, which detracted somewhat from the overall effect, but it’s possible I’m just misunderstanding. First, the timeline around the ownership of the house seems off to me. Lukas says his father built it around 1900, and transferred ownership to a neighbor before they emigrated because of the Nazis. He refers to the neighbor giving the deed back in 1947, but also says that the neighbor made sure they never lost possession in “fifty years of forced stays abroad” even though the events of the book, according to the first pages, happen in 1980-81. Probably the emigration occurred in the late twenties or early 30s, but I couldn’t reconcile all these details into a timeline.

Second, although he refers to his brother and he being boys together, and refers to his own old age (and if he was a recent graduate when the family emigrated, that would make sense), his brother has a five year old daughter, and a son who is presumably much older because he has joined the Green Party. I guess that’s entirely possible. But these details that stood out as anomalous distracted me a bit from the meditative parts of the story, because my brain was trying to work out the chronology. I also kept wondering why a man who lived when he did would not mention either world war in his recollections of his boyhood and youth — someone who is old in 1980 would presumably have been alive for both.

Anyway, these were minor distractions. And Moss doesn’t depend on a chronology — in fact, Lukas might say that my trying to classify the order of things is the problem. After all, he notes, “In the botanist’s piercing gaze, science only feeds on and exploits the fullness of the world. The gaze I search for must, instead of viewing nature as leading from an inseparable wholeness to a cataloged system, see it flow through that system back again into its original fullness.” Throughout his life, Lukas “. . . found such a gaze only once among my colleagues — namely in Marjorie’s eyes.” She was a young Scottish exchange student he loved, who left Germany because of fascism’s rise. Now, as he is completing his life’s work alone in the woods, learning from the mosses he has studied his whole life, the gaze he seeks comes to fruition and it is not only his own gaze, but the mosses’ and trees’ that help him see.

There are lots of mosses around our house, on the ground, trees, rocks, roof. When I see them now I’ll think of this book and the way that humans explain themselves into truths that are limited by our own minds and our relentless desire to categorize and classify — a desire I relate to. Perhaps paying closer attention to mosses, without giving into the desire to explain them, and as I said in my previous post, making eye contact with our fellow species, would benefit us more in the long run than relying so heavily on what we can prove.

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Although I own a print copy of H is for Hawk, I listened to it as an audio book; I’m not much of an audiobook listener, but if I was still driving to work every day I probably would have tried the audio of Helen Macdonald‘s new book, Vesper Flights, because she is an excellent reader. As it is, I was delighted to download the library eBook on the day the book was released, which was lucky. I don’t love e reading, and it takes me longer than print, but while I’m not going to physical libraries, I’ve been pretty happy with the selection of new (and some old) books on Hoopla, which doesn’t have holds and long waiting lists like Overdrive or cloudLibrary. 

Vesper Flights is on Hoopla so I got it right away. It’s a collection of essays, some of which are reprinted and others, new. I hadn’t read any of them before, so it didn’t matter much to me which were which. She writes about the natural world, and many of her pieces are about birds, but as in H is for Hawk, she tends to tie what she’s learned or observed about nature to observations about human nature. 

For example: “So often we think of mindfulness, of existing purely in the present moment, as a spiritual goal. But winter woods teach me something else: the importance of thinking about history. They are able to show you the last five hours, the last five days, and the last five centuries, all at once.”

And: “At times of difficulty, watching birds ushers you into a different world, where no words need be spoken. And if you’re watching urban falcons, this is not a distant world, but one alongside you, a place of transient and graceful refuge . . . . The Poolbeg site is about as far as you can get from a thriving natural ecosystem, but the act of watching a falcon chase its prey above the scarred and broken ground below feels like quiet resistance against despair. Matters of life and death and a sense of our place in the world tied fast together in a shiver of wings across a scrap of winter sky.” 

Brexit and the awful conditions for refugees in Britain make their way into some of the pieces. So does climate change. But though there is plenty to be anxious about in human behavior, Macdonald examines the way we take solace in animals and suggests we consider what we don’t know. In the final piece in the book she notes, “. . . the more I’ve learned about animals the more I’ve come to think there might not be only one right way to express care, to feel allegiance, a love for place, a way of moving through the world.”

She cautions that the way we experience the world and the way the other inhabitants we share it with experience it are not only different, but beyond us. We can’t feel or experience what other creatures do. She explains, “Perhaps this is why I am impatient with the argument that we should value natural places for their therapeutic benefits. It’s true that time walking in a forest can be beneficial to our mental health. But valuing a forest for that purpose traduces what forests are: they are not there for us alone.”

But Macdonald doesn’t think this means we can’t experience a real connection with other creatures. Yes they are not us, and we are not them, but we do share the places where we both live. She describes a moment when, feeling worn out with worry and computer time, she steps outside and as a rook flies over, and they make eye contact. “Our separate lives coincided, and all my self-absorbed anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else sent a glance across the divide and stitched me back into a world where both of us have equal billing.”

To enjoy this book, I’m afraid, you’d have to be open to this idea. And to the idea that we are negatively impacting nature by our inattention and self absorption and greed. I would hope that those ideas are commonplace, but that’s probably overly optimistic. I enjoyed it very much. I don’t know when I’ve made eye contact with anything wild other than insects and squirrels that I’m chasing away from my garden, including one squirrel who very well may have nibbled through two strands of solar lights on our deck. I plan to be more deliberate about noticing. I have a feeling that making eye contact with birds and other wild creatures might make us all less self-absorbed.

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Some Tame Gazelle was Barbara Pym‘s debut novel, published in 1950. I thought it was a postwar book, because there are a number of unmarried women, but she started writing it in the 1930s, when she was still very young. It’s about two unmarried sisters, Harriet and Belinda, in their 50s but still hoping for love. Belinda has been in love with a man for thirty years, Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve (who had a cameo appearance in A Glass of Blessings), but he married someone else. He also happens to be the priest at their village church and a rather vain and self-important man. Harriet fusses over every curate that comes to work with Henry. She receives regular marriage proposals from an Italian count who lives in the village, a kind man who loves to garden and is working on a collection of letters written by his late friend, a gentleman diplomat well known to all in the village who died in the Balkans.

Belinda and Harriet, and several other unmarried women in the village, lead quiet lives that revolve around church, books, knitting, and what to have for luncheon, tea, and supper. Belinda, despite her thwarted love, is a dependable friend to the Archdeacon and his wife, Agatha. While Pym is clearly commenting on gender roles, and on the differences among high and low church Anglicans (including a moment when Belinda muses that it’s easier in the city where clergy can move in theri favorite circles, whereas in their country village the Archdeacon and his neighboring Anglo Catholic colleague make subtle digs at each other), her social commentary is understated.

Pym’s humor is also gentle — her characters are decent people even when they act in humorous ways, and she makes no one ridiculous. And some of what I found funny might not have been as she was writing it. Harriet has to hide the corsets she’s mending when someone comes to the door, Belinda worries over whether “cauliflower cheese” is a fine luncheon for the woman seamstress who makes and then after taking so much care, faces the fact that it goes uneaten because a caterpillar has stowed away in the cauliflower. There are also some archly funny bits about Belinda’s friend Nicholas Parnell, now librarian at their old University. Reading a letter from him:

“Belinda sighed. Dead Nicholas was really quite obsessed with the Library and its extensions. She wished he would remember that the two things which bound them together were the memory of their undergraduate days and our greater English poets.”

If it seems frivolous to read this kind of thing while our world is falling apart — while people are dying of COVID, black people are dying at the hands of police because legislators’ promises about change have faded away once again, our President is trying to prevent a free and fair election and our government systematically lies to us, well, maybe it is. I think it’s more of a defense mechanism. There are more Barbara Pym novels on Hoopla so I look forward to continuing to seek refuge in them.

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It had been years since I’ve read Niall Williams. I own the series of nonfiction books he and Christine Breen wrote about moving from New York to County Clare. We went through a serious phase in our thirties of wanting to live radically differently than we do. We researched various alternatives, and that was how I found the Kiltumper books.

I knew that Williams went on to write fiction (and so has Breen, I learned this evening), but I hadn’t read any of his novels until now. This is Happiness caught my eye in the spring when I still thought I’d be ordering new fiction sometime this year for the library. I put a hold on the eBook and just got to check it out last week.

It’s the story of Noe, a seventeen year old who has left seminary in the early 70s and comes from Dublin to Clare to visit his grandparents, Ganga, a perennially happy but not very productive small farmer and Doady, his long suffering wife. While Noe is staying with them, their Faha, is being connected to the electrical grid. Not long after he arrives, Christy comes to board. He works for the electrical company and is there to assure the various property holders have signed off on the paperwork necessary to install the poles and lines.

But as Noe learns, Christy is really in Faha on a mission. He jilted a woman fifty years before, and is there to gain her forgiveness. In the meantime, he rides bicycles around the countryside with Noe, seeking a particular fiddle player. An unlikely friendship, this older man who is trying to walk back his regrets and a young one, unsure of his future? Perhaps, but it makes sense. In a way they are both trying to understand how best to live.

Noe is recalling all of this as an old man. Williams weaves the stories through a spring and summer when miraculously, it stops raining. Noe’s and Christy’s stories unspool slowly, and maybe because I read this book during a week when it was hot and mostly dry, that seemed fitting. At one point, Noe explains his long, winding digressions:

“The known world was not so circumscribed then nor knowledge equated with facts. Story was a kind of human binding. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was telling everywhere. Because there were fewer sources of where to find out anything, there was more listening.”

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

The details are so vivid in this book you’ll see the “car” Doady and Ganga take to church, pulled by an aging horse, smell the turf smoke, feel the heat that induces naps and the people bumping close together in St. Cecelia’s where everyone just moves down the pew and makes space. Williams’ musical, witty turns of phrase can help you picture expressions. For example, describing a neighbor:

“Bat was a man who tried in vain to make himself believable. He often looked like he was in mid-sum and realising he had forgotten to carry the one.”

And, when Noe develops a truly crushing crush on a young woman:

“I said her name, and, like the first man to eat the egg of a bird, felt a little ascension, and like him wouldn’t have been surprised to find feathers at my back.”

While we actually never learn whether Noe decides his future, Williams does bring Christy’s story to a tidy conclusion. And we learn that it’s his philosophy that “this is happiness” — meaning we can be content in the moment, even when things aren’t going our way (as they frequently don’t, in Faha). Ganga also ascribes to this, as he tells Rushe, and engineer from the electric company, that he and Doady aren’t “taking” the electricity which Rushe tells them contains, “In one switch, all the cures for loneliness.”

“Aren’t we happy as we are?” Ganga asks.

Imagine that. a lovely book about life and love, and yes, happiness.

 

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I finished two books yesterday,  and  “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Tatum and Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird.

First, I read Tatum’s book, which I had bought a used copy of at a small indie bookstore two summers ago, for a discussion group at work. It was written in 1997, which struck me because it is a stark reminder that back then, although I would have said I wasn’t racist, I was not actively antiracist and would have been surprised by much of what Tatum writes about. Knowing what I know now, I was not surprised, but I will say this is a very interesting book because Tatum is a psychology professor so she approaches antiracism from the perspective of an educator, researcher, and psychologist.

Which is not to say this is dry or academic — it’s smart and thorough but completely accessible and replete with anecdotes from her classes and her life as a Black woman, mother, and professor. Her approach is to address racism as it impacts Black or multiracial people from childhood through adulthood as they develop their racial identity. Whatever your race there is much to learn about these stages of development. Whether reading it for your own education and understanding or to support a loved one or friend, Tatum’s sensible advice and authoritative voice will be helpful.

For example, in a chapter on “The Development of White Identity,” Tatum describes how white people, especially those who have gained “an intellectual understanding of racism as a system of advantage” struggle to deal with self-consciousness, guilt, fear, and even blame. Sound familiar? It did to me. But Tatum cautions, “We all must be able to embrace who we are in terms of our racial and cultural heritage, not in terms of assumed superiority or inferiority, but as an integral part of our daily experience in which we can take pride.”

I am really looking forward to the conversation about this book!

Into the Silent Land is one of the books I’m reading as a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I’ve read a LOT of secular books on meditation, and have practiced mindfulness (practice being the operative word) for a long time. I also have a regular prayer practice, and have read about and tried meditative forms of prayer, mostly unsuccessfully. Laird, also a professor, has written a concise and highly informative handbook, which makes me want to try again.

Drawing on the history of contemplative prayer as well as the practical aspects of practicing it, Laird is both systematic and supportive. The combination of practical advice, encouragement, and ancient but still highly relevant wisdom is terrific. I’ve made tentative steps towards trying contemplative prayer. It’s a little chaotic around here right now, but maybe that is a good time to try stillness.

As Laird notes, “When we first begin the inward turn to quiet prayer we are faced with chaos, and the prayer word serves as an anchor in a storm, a shield and refuge from the onslaught of thoughts, feelings, storms of boredom, and fidgeting. But with some practice with the prayer word we grow in recollection and concentration and begin to see that there is something deeper than the chaos within. . . . What exactly is the prayer word doing? The prayer word excavates the present moment. The resulting interior focus eventually sets off and maintains a process of interior silencing.”

Sounds pretty good right about now, doesn’t it?

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